Bin Laden's theology a radical break with traditional Islam
May 4th, 2011
03:00 AM ET

Bin Laden's theology a radical break with traditional Islam

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - Osama bin Laden wore the mantle of a religious leader. He looked the part and talked a good game, but his theology was a radical departure from traditional orthodox Islam.

The pitch to join al Qaeda did not start with an invitation to put on a suicide vest but, like other religious splinter groups and cults, took advantage of disenfranchisement and poverty.

Bin Laden had no official religious training but developed his own theology of Islam.

"We don't know that (bin Laden) was ever exposed to orthodox Islamic teachings," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University.

The writing of ideologues in the Muslim Brotherhood influenced bin Laden heavily, Moosa said.

"He takes scriptural imperatives at their face value and believes this is the only instruction and command God has given him - unmediated by history, unmediated by understanding, unmediated by human experience. Now that's a difference between Muslim orthodoxy and what I would call uber- or hyperscripturalists," Moosa said.

The vast majority of Islamic scholars and imams say the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed happened in historical context that needs to be understood when reading and interpreting the Quran.

"If the likes of bin Laden, if they had spent one day or maybe one month possibly, in a madrassa (Muslim religious school) and understood how the canonical tradition is interpreted, they would not go onto this kind of destructive path they go on," Moosa said.

In the entire leadership structure of al Qaeda, "no one has had any sort of formal religious training from any seminary," said Aftab Malik, a global expert on Muslim affairs at the United Nations Alliance of Civilization. He is researching a Ph.D. on al Qaeda.

"What you had was an engineer and a doctor leading a global jihad against the whole world," Malik said. "That would never happen in normative Islam. It's just such an aberration."

John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said bin Laden "appropriates Islam ... to legitimate and mobilize people."

"If you look at bin Laden's early statements and arguments, his interview with Peter Bergen on CNN ... lots of people would see it as something that would go down very well not just with many Muslims but among many analysts when he talks about longstanding political grievances," Esposito said.

"What bin Laden ends up doing is saying anyone who disagrees with him, any Muslim, is in fact an apostate," he said. That includes Muslims who would not join his fight, he said. "It's a distortion of the traditional teaching, and it just extends the parameters and the consequences in order to legitimate how when you're fighting on the ground you're fighting against your own people."

Malik said, "The key issue is of apostasy," referring to when a person leaves a faith. "One of the things Osama bin Laden deviates from is calling those people who do not implement Sharia, or God's law, on the planet as apostates. If they did not implement Sharia, they deserved death. This is a major departure from normative Islam."

"The second major deviation is the targeting of noncombatants. Even when you read in the Quran there are injunctions for fighting. But before and after the injunctions for fighting are calls for restraint. 'Do not attack monks, do not attack women, do not attack children.' And these are numerated heavily in the Hadith, which are uncontested," Malik said, referring to the sayings of the prophet and his close companions.

"What bin Laden has done is ignored those injunctions," he said. "The reason he has ignored them, in Osama bin Laden's theology it's basically a theology of anarchy.

"Once you let the genie out of the bottle you can't put it back in, and that's the big difference between al Qaeda theology and normative Islam. Normative Islam has heavy constraints - very, very heavy."

Bin Laden's theology is waning greatly in influence, Esposito said, in part because of the rise of the Arab Spring, the revolts of people on the street across the Middle East that have overthrown regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

"(Al Qaeda's) whole notion was to develop a mass movement," Esposito said. "Well, they never did."

Flashback: Read CNN's Chief International Correspondent Nic Robertson's report on a Libyan group that denounced bin Laden ideology

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- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 9/11 • Egypt • Islam • Islamic law • Leaders • Middle East • Osama bin Laden • Quran • Sharia • Terrorism • Violence

soundoff (671 Responses)
  1. Christopher

    With all due respect, Osama didn't change things in Islam too much or at all. He was just taking things in Islam and applying them to other things. Now, you can say that they don't apply, but that is a PoV thing.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • joejoefromhouston

      There are plenty of passages in the Koran that condone wanton violence against non-believers and there are several that condemn it. The same can be said of the Bible.

      Lunatics from either theology can justify violence if they wish, but the vast majority Muslims and Christians choose to focus on peaceful teachings and passages from their respective Holy books.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • jellyfishdude

      Christians don't choose...individuals choose. Christians don't condone evil and we even pray for the souls of our enemies and take care of their graves.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • RdclCntrst

      Did you even read the article? Or are you just basing your conclusions on what Michele Bachmann told you?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Catherine

      Christopher, You are so right.

      It is not the terrorists that we have to fear so much. We have to fear most, those who refuse to see what Islam truly is. They refuse to see that Osama was a fervent and pius Muslim. Osama gave his life for what he believed in. Here are his own words and the results of this religion.

      "I am one of the servants of Allah. We do our duty of fighting for the sake of the religion of Allah. It is also our duty to send a call to all the people of the world to enjoy this great light and to embrace Islam and experience the happiness in Islam.
      Our primary mission is nothing but the furthering of this religion." Osama bin Laden (1957 – 2011)

      Islam's Latest Contributions to Peace

      "Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless
      to the unbelievers but merciful to one another" Quran 48:29

      2011.05.05 (Maiduguri, Nigeria) – A child is among two people shot to death by Boko Haram Islamists
      2011.05.04 (Baidoa, Somalia) – al-Shabaab executes two young 'apostates' at a soccer stadium, forcing children to watch.

      2011.05.04 (Borno, Nigeria) – A woman is among two people taken down by Islamist assassins.

      2011.05.04 (Halila, Iraq) – Mujahideen stop two trucks and execute the drivers.

      2011.05.04 (Karbala, Iraq) – Three agricultural workers are murdered by Islamic bombers.

      2011.05.04 (Yala, Thailand) – Muslim militants roll up on a tea shop and machine-gun four people to death, including two teenagers.

      All Muslims believe that eventually they have to dominate the world and Islam is the only religion that should be practiced by all and that allah is the only one to be worshiped

      May 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  2. mangus

    kadafi will have a bullet in his brain very soon.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  3. Steve

    I agree with others I want to know Bin Laden is for sure dead from an independent source I trust our U.S. government, but would understand if they were trying to bring this story to demoralize the enemies of the United States. I also would like to say that I agree with the assessment I believe that him and others do have their own view of Islam from what I hear. Unfortunately many Muslims or enough muslims are buying into it. IF YOU GUYS NO WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU GET RID OF THE RADICALS IT IS GOING TO DESTROY YOUR RELIGION!!!!!!!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  4. Briona

    i want to know how sure are we whether or not bin laden is dead?................this is hard to believe and it is a mistery that no one can find out..................he is like the most wanted man in the world nobody knows if this was some kind of plan or something...........well only gods knows the thruth.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  5. John

    If you want to make a change, you have to open your eyes, think and study, like esposito, moosa and malik above. I think it will take some time before al-queda no longer is, there are many ways to remove it , I think removing poverty somehow and bringing teaching to the people exposed to such an organization is the way to do it. People tend to move to the extreme where theres poverty and life is particurarly hard.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  6. Robert

    Al Qaeda ideology was already becoming moribund years before the unlamented death of Osama bin Laden. Over the past years, Muslims have witnessed massive destruction to their societies caused by this extremist ideology, with hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Iraq, Pakistan and other countries. Al Qaeda ideology has done nothing for Muslims, no political change in any country, no newly independent countries created. By contrast, the "Arab Spring" has shown that peaceful reform led by the middle class and educated elites are far more effective tools. Osama bin Laden's support has collapsed in every Muslim country where it is surveyed. Perhaps in one of history's ironies, the Bush administration bungled Iraq and gave free rein to Al Qaeda extremists. With the free rope given, Al Qaeda hung itself.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  7. Christopher

    Apparently it was the same version Pakistan has, Afghanistan has, Saudi Arabia has, Palestine has, Iran has and Syria has.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Stevie7

      That's about as short-sighted, illogical, uninformed, over-generalized statement as one could make.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  8. Jaszmine

    Wow Its Alot Of Stuff Poping Up About Bin Laden

    May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  9. me

    peace b with you ..do not just the holy QUR AN ..if u dont know anything about it ..those people who break the rules of islam they are belong n islam sunna they are munafiqeen

    May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  10. Muneef

    The theology started by the west as to building a religious belt to confront the expansion of the Sovt but when it was over plans changed and the partner became then an enemy...!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • RdclCntrst

      Mmm, not quite. It is true that the US fostered violence in Afghanistan as a way to curb Soviet influence, but to say that the US begat religious extremism for use as a weapon is just not true. Want proof? How many imams were trained in extremist Islam in US government-run madrassas? How many extremist madrassas were built in the US? How many fatwas were issued by the US government, calling for religion-based resistance to Soviet incursion? Since the answer to all three questions is "zero–and the thought is preposterous", it's pretty obvious that fundamentalist Islam wasn't used by the US as a doctrinal tool against the USSR. Not to say that the US disapproved of the mujahideen's motivation; it's safer to say that they didn't care. Congressman Charlie Wilson and his ilk were so focused on fighting communism and they completely dropped the ball on realizing what consequences the ignorance of growing Islamic fundamentalism would have in the future. This is beyond dispute. But did they found extremist strains of Muslim thought? No.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Stevie7

      Developing a tool and using a tool are two very different things.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Muneef

      Not directly but rather through the KSA and others. Beside those terrorists exported to us from the West since you been harboring all extremists who teach hatred if front of your eyes and ears then send us those to mess up our countries securities...see how many in London alone...?

      May 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  11. human

    irrationality or blind faith is the biggest problems with us humans. religion is just one form of it.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. gillis

    osama bin laden,s death is briging a world pesces to all nation and melitans, tailban hasbola and other in world.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • RdclCntrst

      Um, what?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Dan

      Translation: "Osama bin Laden's death is bringing world peace to all nations, militants, Taliban, Hezbollah [and] others in the world."

      I used to teach in that part of the world. LOL.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  13. SadieSadie

    I have been thinking on this and now view OBL as nothing more than a cult leader. Like a cult leader he exploited the weaknesses of fringe Muslims and disenfranchised American Muslim teens that were having trouble finding their place in mainstream America. He gave them a good spin, a bit of brain washing and sent them out with guns and bombs. He did it in the name of Islam but he could have done it in the name of anything.
    This doesn't let the people used off the hook but it does frighten me to think of how easy it would be for any charismatic person to gain a gathering of people and use them to commit atrocious crimes against humanity.
    I have read that the second in command of al Qaeda isn't nearly as charismatic as OBL so there is hope that they will be unable to rally up as many youths in the future.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • c

      Yes. I think that your ideas are spot on. I shudder every time he is called a Muslim.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      > Yes. I think that your ideas are spot on. I shudder every time he is called a Muslim.

      If you do, I don't think you know what the religion of Islam is all about.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  14. Muneef

    Gadafi going away with out some solution might cause his whole tribe of Al-Gadadifa be targeted and chased out of the country and that way you have condemned the whole tribe and relative tribes be excuted....Tribal countries it is not as easy as those who are not,where the Presidents can go with out unrooting bloodshed....

    May 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  15. Dnepro12

    While I thoroughly agree that Osama Bin Laden's theology was radically different from mainstream Islam, he did not create his theology in a vacuum and he did have theological predecessors. Osama Bin Laden is a new more radical link in a chain that stretches through Abdullah Yusuf Azzam and Sayyid Qutb all the way back to Ibn Taymiyya. While this is certainly a radical branch element of Islam, and I appreciate that this article is mainly trying to combat Islamophobia, I was hoping for an article tracing the development of this theological branch.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  16. tom j

    Bin Laden and much of Pakistan share some serious defect in common, the belief that the Koran is legit. But can it be if it violates the tenets of superior subordinate relationships where a subordinate is to retain responsibility for his or her actions? The Koran draws down acceptable behavior to too narrow a range of action where hundreds of other options might be available. In order for an individual not to be as a puppet to a superior he/she must manage to use their own reason and choice of action. The Koran fails when implied directives concerning behavior subvert an individuals choice over available acceptable alternatives. This is indicative of someone wanting others to believe a God had something to do with the Koran but the complexity of retained responsibility was not something the writers understood at all how to do. Interestingly one defect we see in Bin Laden is one where he is inclined to take control over the thinking of others through terrorist acts. He failed to recognize his acting as puppeteer over people is a primitive concept. The people who follow him need to realize that acting as puppeteer over people is a primitive concept and that people learn from great leaders only by example, not force.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  17. Vvs1Blue

    Bin Laden, like most zealots twisted the hope of religion to serve his own agenda. The result is the death (when you count Iraq and other skirmishes where he was an influence) of nearly if not more than 200,000 humans.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  18. myklds

    I agree, Ghadafi must let go of his Greedy Grip of the Government and spare Libya from his suicidal mentality.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  19. wipeOut

    "Crime Does Not Pay" History proves it.

    Past: Saddam Hussein
    Present: Bin Laden
    Future: Ghadafi

    But, "When there's life there is hope". Hence, he still have a chance to change the future with this:

    Past: Gbagbo
    Present: Mubarak
    Future: Ghadafi

    He must take his pick before it's too late..

    May 4, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • ASAP

      Yes, Ghadafi must make his choice while still he can.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • MorEviL

      Ghadafi is more worst than Saddam and Bin Ladin. He have been terrorizing his own country.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • MorEviL


      May 4, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  20. Ted M

    If interpretation is not unequivocal, then it is no better than a guess and no better than a lie.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:59 am |
    • Adam

      Amen, Ted. "It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil." ~Sam Harris

      May 4, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • jellyfishdude

      with Orthodox Christianity, it's based on facts and a very deep belief in spirituality...there is no hope...we really believe in what we believe. i think it's telling though, what Osama Bin Laden became, can happen to anyone who's religious. If you interpret scripture on your own, undisciplilned, and without council (which is what the Church is for), you are exposing yourself to great evils.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Guest

      Agreed. However, you can't simply interprete Quran just by reading it. You'll need to understand the Hadiths, etc. as well. Only then will the teachings of Quran be unequivocal.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Rogue

      That whooshing sound is Ted's point flying completely over your heads.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Thersites

      Isn't the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia Wahhabism? Don't they frown on religious teachers and clerics as coming between the believer and the Koran? Which sounds a great deal like what this article is describing.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • civilioutside

      "i think it's telling though, what Osama Bin Laden became, can happen to anyone who's religious. If you interpret scripture on your own, undisciplilned, and without council (which is what the Church is for), you are exposing yourself to great evils."

      If you can't read it and plainly understand what it's telling you (even to the point of being driven to do evil by that reading)without someone else there to tell you what it "really means" (and who told them?), then I would argue that the so-called scripture is worthless.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.